What is learned helplessness – causes, manifestation, solutions (I)

Learned helplessness is a psychological condition in which a person has learned to act or behave helpless in a certain situation, even though in reality, the person has the power to change or exit the unpleasant situation they are in.

The concept was initially developed by psychologist Martin Seligman in the 1960s, based on his observations of animal behavior in various experiments. He, along with his collaborators, accidentally discovered during experiments attempting to observe the connection between fear and learning, the phenomenon of learned helplessness. Animals subjected to situations where they had no control over their environment developed a behavior of helplessness, even when offered options for control later on. Therefore, the concept suggests that, following repetitive experiences of lack of control, people can develop a mindset of helplessness, perceiving themselves as unable to influence the outcomes of their lives.

When people start to believe they have no control over what happens to them, they begin to feel and behave as if they are helpless. Helplessness is learned because no one is born with the belief that they have no control over what happens to them and that it is even useless to try to do something to get out of that situation. If a person learns that their behavior does not change the aversive situations they are in, that person will not try to do anything, not even in situations where they have the power to make those changes.

It is a passive resignation in the face of repeated exposure to certain unpleasant, negative situations perceived to be inevitable. In this way, the person learns that they will not be able to avoid negative things happening to them in the future (because they have happened in the past and they could not do anything about it), that they have no control, so they will not even try to prevent them or take any action.

Traumas or repeated negative situations begin to influence the sense of self-efficacy and the degree to which a person believes they can control the events that affect them (locus of control).

Self-efficacy is a person's belief or expectation that they are capable of performing a behavior. In other words, the confidence that they can cope with challenges, successfully perform certain behaviors, and manage future situations. How a person judges their own efficacy determines whether they will initiate a certain behavior or not, how much effort they will put in, and how long they will persist in the face of obstacles. The higher the self-efficacy, the higher the performance achieved, and the efforts made will not be perceived as overwhelming.

Locus of control refers to the degree to which a person believes they can control the events that affect them. People who have an internal locus of control believe that events in their lives are the result of their own behaviors and actions. Those with an external locus of control believe that others, fate, or luck determine, to a large extent, the various events experienced.

When you believe in personal efficacy and have an internal locus of control, you feel confident and strong, even when facing adversities and obstacles.

In the case of learned helplessness, you lack confidence in your ability to cope with challenges, you don't believe your actions will change the situation in any way, so you end up seeing no way out.

Learned helplessness may manifest in certain aspects of your life while less in others (for example, you may have confidence in handling your job well, but find it difficult to set boundaries in interpersonal relationships), however, in general, these aspects or plans of your life intersect and influence each other, so if you perceive yourself as helpless, it will be seen, to a greater or lesser extent, in every aspect of your life.

There are numerous situations that can contribute to the development of learned helplessness:

Childhood (abuse, domestic violence, neglect, trauma), family environment, and significant events from the past can create a breeding ground for the development of learned helplessness. Those who have experienced consecutive lack of control in various contexts can internalize this state and may have inclinations towards a negative perception of their own ability to influence events.

For example, a child who has grown up in an abusive family environment may form the belief that the world is a harsh and dangerous place and that they can’t trust people. If they perceive that they can’t rely on those around them because they, instead of taking care of them, harm them, they may grow up with the belief that bad things will always happen to them, no matter what they do.

Another example could be the following: a child raised in an environment where they are not given the opportunity to express their opinions or take on responsibilities may develop a mindset of helplessness.

The reward and punishment system in education can also play a significant role in shaping children's behavior. When children are praised and rewarded for their achievements, confidence in their own abilities develops. However, if punishments are exaggerated or unfairly applied, they may learn that their efforts are futile and that they can’t control the consequences.

A critical or authoritarian family environment - the relationship with one’s parents plays an important role in shaping how children perceive control over their lives. A child raised in an environment where they receive constant criticism, regardless of their efforts, may come to believe that they have no control over the outcomes and that, no matter how hard they try, they will fail. Parents who do not encourage their children's efforts and progress, who do not encourage the development of problem-solving skills, who do not give children the chance to express their independence or creativity, who provide constant negative feedback, who do not support their children but constantly undermine their confidence, can contribute to building a negative self-image.

Children learn from their parents how to interpret and respond to events, stress, and failures - they are extremely receptive to parental behavioral patterns, so if parents exhibit helplessness in the face of their own challenges or pessimism, they can influence children to adopt a similar attitude.

Solving children’s problems - when parents take on the role of problem-solving for their children instead of encouraging them to find solutions on their own, when they do for them what they could do themselves,  they can internalize the belief that they are not capable of coping with challenges. On the other hand, an environment that encourages autonomy and resilience can counteract the effects of learned helplessness. When children are encouraged to take on responsibilities, to push their limits, and to develop their own problem-solving strategies, they can gain a more proactive mindset and increased confidence in their abilities.

Repeated failures - children, in their development, are exposed to various experiences. If these consistently include failures and lack of success in a particular area, children may begin to associate that area with helplessness and lack of control. For example, a child who frequently struggles with solving math problems may develop a mindset of helplessness in this area.

School or professional experiences where a person receives constant negative evaluations without adequate recognition of their efforts can contribute to the onset of learned helplessness. For example, a student who faces constant failures in academics and does not receive the necessary support to improve their performance may start to believe that they have no control over their success. This can lead to a mindset of helplessness and avoidance of efforts to improve.

An employee who faces repeated failures at work or who does not receive recognition for their efforts may develop a mindset of helplessness. Lack of support and absence of opportunities for professional growth can contribute to this state.

Unrealistic standards - unrealistic expectations, constant pressure to succeed, constant comparison with others, and the chronic feeling of not meeting others' expectations can cause children to feel overwhelmed by their lack of performance, thereby contributing to learned helplessness. If this familial or school pressure is not properly managed and the emphasis is not placed on personal effort and individual development, feelings of helplessness, the sense of not having control over one's own success, and the inability to meet expectations may arise.

The media, by promoting unrealistic standards of success and happiness, can contribute to the formation of a distorted perception of social and individual expectations.

Toxic interpersonal relationships - individuals in abusive or toxic relationships may feel that they have no control over their own lives. This can lead to the onset of a mindset of helplessness, where the person begins to believe that they are unable to break free from such a relationship or to build an independent and healthy life.

Facing prejudice and discrimination - individuals facing discrimination based on race, gender, or other criteria may come to believe that they have no control over how they are treated in society. This feeling of helplessness can affect self-confidence and contribute to learned helplessness. Additionally, society, through labeling and stereotypes, can influence how individuals perceive their own abilities, especially when they do not fit into social norms.

How does learned helplessness manifest?

Avoidance of new or difficult situations - a clear sign of learned helplessness is avoiding new or challenging situations. People who consider themselves helpless may develop a fear of trying new things, avoid challenges and situations that involve effort and taking responsibility, considering them too difficult or impossible because they believe their efforts will not lead to success. Additionally, they tend to avoid solving difficult problems, hoping that they will resolve themselves or that someone else will intervene.

Low frustration tolerance - because they feel that everything is out of their control, people facing learned helplessness have a very low tolerance for frustration. They easily feel overwhelmed or confused when working on different projects or interacting with various people.

Tendency to give up easily - even when they start working on something, they give up quite quickly. They find it hard to complete tasks or pursue goals with perseverance because even the smallest obstacles seem unbearable to them.

Excessive perfectionism - another indicator can be excessive perfectionism. People who have experienced learned helplessness may develop a fear of making mistakes and may constantly seek perfection to avoid criticism or failure.

Excessive need for approval - they may develop an excessive need for approval and constantly seek validation from others to compensate for their feelings of helplessness and lack of control.

Self-sabotage and self-limitation - they may engage in self-sabotaging behaviors  or self-limitation, believing that any additional effort is futile or not worth trying, and constantly criticizing their abilities, even in situations where they can successfully perform what they need to do.

 Lack of initiative - passivity and lack of initiative can be signs of learned helplessness. They passively wait for events to happen around them without taking an active role.

Black and white thinking - seeing the world in terms of "all or nothing," where success is seen as the only valid option, and anything else is considered a complete failure.

Pessimistic perspective - adopting a pessimistic view of the future and one's personal ability to influence events. A pessimistic explanatory style diminishes the ability to respond proactively to negative events.

A person's explanatory style or attributional  style (the way a person interprets and explains the events they go through and their behaviors) affects the likelihood of learned helplessness. For example, when a person is in an unpleasant situation, they will ask themselves "why is this happening?" The answers they give will "dictate" the person's explanatory style - optimistic or pessimistic. For example, if someone sees a negative event as permanent ("this will never change"), and not temporary, this perspective may encourage learned helplessness and depression.

Or if someone feels worried while preparing for an important exam, they might adopt one of the following perspectives:

Optimistic view: "This exam is difficult, so I will make a study plan and ask for help if necessary." If the person fails the exam, they will say: "the courses were tough, but now I know what to expect and how best to prepare."

Pessimistic view: "This exam is difficult, so I will probably fail no matter what I do." If the person fails the exam, they will say: "I knew I wouldn't pass the exam, I wasted time studying for nothing. It doesn't even make sense to go take it again."

Victim mentality and helplessness - the feeling of helplessness, often encountered in people with a victim mentality, offers them certain secondary benefits, such as attention and compassion from others. A person who has embraced a victim status never feels in control of their own life, and the loss of control intensifies over time. They feel powerless, self-deprecate, and lack self-confidence.

In the second part of this article, we will continue to discuss the impact of learned helplessness on personal and professional life and how it can be overcome, so stay close!

Dr. Ursula Sandner


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